Why Is Mezcal So Darn Expensive?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a customer’s complete shock upon picking up a bottle of tobala (a wild agave used to make mezcal) and checking out the price. Compared to tequila, mezcal can be significantly more expensive, and without much background on the process, it can be hard to understand why. Mezcal is a complicated spirit, much too complicated to explain in just one post or article--it’s a spirit that involves hundreds of years of Mexican culture, family tradition, and countless socioeconomic factors. It is misunderstood and often taken for granted. I won’t get into all of that here, but I will tell you why that $150 price tag is worth every last simoleon. First, mezcal production is the most labor intensive spirits process you will ever encounter; from start to finish, this is about as “farm to bottle” as you get. Witnessing first hand the work that it takes to grow, harvest, trim, and transport the agave is mind-boggling. All this effort just for the plant and we haven’t even gotten to the cooking, fermentation, and distillation! Many different species of agave can be used for mezcal production, unlike tequila, which uses only one (blue weber). The average blue weber plant takes (depending on the land and other factors) 7-10 years to reach maturity--in the world of mezcal, the closest relative is espadin, which reaches maturity in a similar time frame. From there, the wait gets much longer. You have dozens of agave varietals to choose from, with an average age of 15-20 years at harvest. And then you have plants like the wild tepeztate that can take up to 30 to 35 years to reach their peak! Imagine purchasing a bottle of 30 year old whiskey for under $200. Makes you think, huh? There are no machines involved in traditional harvesting, just good old fashioned elbow grease used to power a machete and an axe. Each tenacious plant is removed from the ground by hand. Donkeys and horses are often used to carry the heavy piñas from hard to reach spots, as many areas are not accessible by truck. The leaves of the plant are trimmed off, a very specialized job also done by hand that can have a big impact on the flavor. The agave is then roasted in an underground pit for several days, before being crushed either by a stone wheel called a tahona (often pulled by burro or horse) or with a machete. The cooked agave is transferred to large wooden vats for fermentation that lasts for several days, or even up to a week. Finally, the last step is distillation. The stills are rustic and heated by wood fire. Don’t expect any fancy gauges or even a thermometer; the mezcalero (distiller) does everything using intuition and the knowledge passed down from previous generations. WIth many spirits, distilling can be the most important part of the craft, but with mezcal, each step is equally important. And a heck of a lot of hard work.